Since I was staying with a friend and colleague in Washington, I had the privilege of experiencing the city as both a tourist and a resident. I walked the Mall, stopped to photograph the Washington Monument and other famous buildings (see slideshow above), but also hung out with some locals and visited the kind of restaurants that they choose to eat at.
My host and I dined at Ambar on the evening we arrived in Washington. It's located on a street lined with bars and restaurants, and this contemporary Balkan restaurant's sophisticated casual look fits right in. Though the feature dishes are all meaty, there are lots of vegetarian plates to share - we enjoyed a freshly baked truffle-wafting flat bread (US$8 ~ AU$8.50), crepes stuffed with roasted mushrooms and bechamel (US$8 ~ AU$8.50), grilled asparagus with quail eggs (US$7 ~ AU$7.50), roasted zucchini topped with a pungent blue cheese raisin sauce (US$6 ~ AU$6.40), and crispy panko-crumbed cauliflower florets with a spicy lemon aioli (US$6 ~ AU$6.40). All up it made for quite a rich, cheesy meal, suggesting that vegans might struggle and that we probably should have subbed in a salad.
The Eastern Market reminded me of the Queen Victoria Market back home, albeit on a smaller scale. There's fresh produce, preserves, crafts and cheap imported knick knacks under marquees and a central building with deli stalls, where I bought some lovey mushroom tortellini. I liked the adjacent flea market the most - it included a lot of locally made crafts, and some cheerful guys making fresh fruit smoothies to order. (I made that my breakfast two days in a row.)
I got a tip from my host that the best lunch around the Mall was to be found inside the National Museum of the American Indian. The Mitsitam Cafe has a typical grab-a-tray cafeteria layout but features an extraordinary variety of native foods from the Americas in traditional and new preparations. I sampled a savoury Bolivian peanut soup (US$5.15 ~ AU$5.50), a mild and cooling hearts of palm salad with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes in a white wine vinaigrette (US$3.55 ~ AU$3.80) and a quinoa-based cordial. My eagle eye also spotted dessert, and I got a few envious looks for tracking down the coarse, shortbready corn wafer topped with a sweet panna cotta-like corn souffle and marinated blackberries (US$5.75 ~ AU$6.10).
My last DC dining experience was at 2 Amys, one of my host's favourite restaurants. It's a cosy family pizzeria that makes lovely woodfired bases and uses excellent mozzarella (the special green tomato margherita above was US$14.45 ~ AU$15.40). In addition to pizze, they offer a seasonal rotation of small plates to share, including breakfast radishes (US$6 ~ AU$6.40), sheep ricotta with honey and pine nuts (US$8 ~ AU$8.50), and a roasted rectangle of eggplant with green onion sauce and smoked ricotta (US$6 ~ AU$6.40). The suppli a telfono (better known to me as arancini, US$5.95 ~ AU$6.30) are a popular and regular fixture.
While Washington is a much smaller city than Melbourne, I got a sense of a strikingly similar food scene with great food at a range of price points, many different cultures represented (apparently I missed out on some fine Ethiopean food, a white-tablecloth Indian restaurant and some killer gelato), plus some neat markets. But I've got a suspicion that no-one does coffee and a cafe brunch quite like home.